Amber Smith was nice enough to stop by and discuss The Way I Used to Be (out March 22).
If you could tell your high school self one thing, what would it be?
Don’t play small. And…life really does get better—or rather, you’ll get better at it. (Okay, so that’s two things, but my high school self would have really needed to hear both!)
What was the inspiration for this story?
Well, I had always wanted to write about sexual violence—it’s a topic that I’ve carried around for a long time but was never quite sure how it would figure in to my work—it has always been important for me to tackle the tough issues, the ones that keep me up at night. But as far as the inspiration for The Way I Used to Be, character came first. I was actually in the middle of working on a different book when I ended up writing the character who would become Eden. She was only meant to play a minor role in that book, but as I began developing a backstory for her, I found myself getting more and more invested in this new character who was suddenly coming to life. And I realized quickly that not only was this girl’s story its own story—it was actually the story I had been wanting to write—one that deserved telling, and one that I felt in my heart before I even wrote the first sentence.
Why did you decide to tell the story of Eden’s entire high school career?
Great question…. I wanted to use the element of time to show just how deep and lasting the wounds of violence can be; by following Eden across all four years of high school, we can see the person she was before she was raped and understand how and why she evolves into the person she becomes. The other main reason I structured the story in this way was to show how, with the passage of time, silence itself can become a force of violence, one that often begins with a slow burn, but can quietly build up to disastrous proportions, not only for Eden herself, but for everyone connected to her. For me, it’s not so much the assault that keeps Eden in a state of trauma, it’s her silence. But, most importantly, what I hoped to reveal along the way is the reason behind her silence: She doesn’t tell anyone what happened because she doesn’t feel like she’ll be heard. Each year that passes, we see Eden trying to gain power over her life, as she struggles to find the strength to become a survivor, in her own way and on her own terms. In reality, recovery from trauma and violation is a long and complicated journey, so it felt appropriate that Eden’s story should unfold over time.
Can you share the first sentence/paragraph?
I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know why I didn’t hear the door click shut. Or why it didn’t register that something was wrong—so mercilessly wrong—when I felt the mattress shift under his weight. Why I didn’t scream when I opened my eyes and saw him crawling between my sheets. Or why I didn’t try to fight him when I still stood a chance.
If you could make one book mandatory, what would it be and why?
Such a tough question! There are so many important books out there that I think everyone should read, but the one that immediately comes to mind is Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. I know this book is still widely mandatory, but I’d like to see it stay that way, as it remains relevant to our lives today, and teaches us so much about humanity, compassion, love, hate, family, and hope. It was also one of the first books I remember reading as a young person and immediately feeling as though her voice seemed to reach out across time and space, somehow connecting me and my life to those people and their struggles.
What are your five favorite books? (You can do authors, if that’s easier.)
This is another really hard one for me (I’d have trouble narrowing down my top fifty!), but here are five of my favorite authors, the ones whose books I’ve read and re-read so many times they are among the most worn-out on my shelves:
Joyce Carol Oates
Laurie Halse Anderson
What 2016 releases are you excited for?
There are so many great books slated for 2016, and I cannot wait for these new ones from some of my most-loved authors:
Ellen Hopkins, Chameleon
Ruta Sepetys, Salt to the Sea
Amy Zhang, This Is Where the World Ends
Julie Murphy, Ramona Drowning
Kody Keplinger, Run
And there are also scores of books from other debut authors, like myself, that I’m really looking forward to as well, including: Kerry Kletter’s The First Time She Drowned, Emily Martin’s The Year We Fell Apart, Marisa Reichardt’s Underwater, Kate Hart’s After the Fall, and the list goes on and on….